The U.S. women’s team boasts an attacking combination of raw power and sheer speed that none of their opponents can match.
That combination, in the form of forwards Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and late-substitute Sydney Leroux, sparked the two-time reigning Olympic champions to a 2-0 win over a toothless New Zealand in Friday’s quarter-final at St. James’ Park in Newcastle.
Wambach guided Morgan’s driven cross over the line from close range on 27 minutes before Leroux sealed the Americans’ victory with a late breakaway goal.
It was another indifferent performance from Head Coach Pia Sundhage’s side. The U.S. largely relied on a direct long-ball game to create opportunities rather than building up through the midfield. Morgan uncharacteristically missed a couple of clear chances, and Megan Rapinoe struggled to get involved for the second game running.
Next up for the Americans is a clash against neighbors Canada in Monday’s semi-final at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Sundhage made one personnel change from Tuesday’s 1-0 win over North Korea in Group G. Tobin Heath, who replaced Rapinoe at half-time in that game, started on the left of midfield with the peroxide playmaker shuttling over to the right side.
Heather O’Reilly dropped to the substitutes’ bench.
New Zealand were playing a knockout game at a major women’s soccer tournament for the first time. Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Cameroon left The Ferns as the second-best third-placed team from the group stages – the final entrant to the quarter-final.
English Head Coach Tony Readings made two line-up changes from New Zealand’s final group game. Hannah Wilkinson partnered Germany-based forward Sarah Gregorius up front in place of University of California, Los Angeles teenager Rosie White. Swedish-based midfielder Kirsty Yallop started on the left side of Readings’ midfield trio with Annalie Longo dropping out.
Promising Early Pattern From New Zealand
The Ferns’ narrow midfield of Yallop, Katie Hoyle and Betsy Hassett quickly used their numerical advantage in the center to settle into a short passing rhythm. From there, New Zealand’s approach was to link up with deep-lying forward Amber Hearn who would in turn thread through balls into the path of Wilkinson and Gregorius. Simple in theory, more difficult to execute.
Wilkinson used her speed to pressurize the U.S. defense and get into threatening positions, but her control often let her down when receiving possession and New Zealand’s attacks petered out. Their early attempts at goal subsequently came from distance. Yallop’s third-minute free kick deflected safely through to U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo. Hoyle fired wide six minutes later, and she tried another effort on 22 minutes that drifted over a watchful Solo’s crossbar.
Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd were struggling to dictate the play for the U.S. with Yallop, Hoyle, Hassett and Hearn all in close proximity. New Zealand’s narrowness in midfield conceded space out wide to Rapinoe, giving the Seattle Sounders winger some opportunities to attack Ali Riley in 1-vs-1 situations before Yallop could shuttle across. The Los Angeles-born left-back proved equal to the task.
Long Balls And Counters Provide Americans With Success
New Zealand’s defensive vulnerabilities were exposed when Sundhage’s side went direct, looking for Morgan’s pace over the top. Center-back Abby Erceg should have intercepted Kelley O’Hara’s hopeful punt on 10 minutes, but her poor touch allowed Morgan to stride through on goalkeeper Jenny Bindon. Morgan skipped around the 39-year-old stopper before dragging her shot across the face of the open goal from a presentable angle.
A similar pass led to the Americans’ opening goal on 27 minutes. Rachel Buehler aimed long down the left wing in search of Morgan, who dragged New Zealand’s captain Rebecca Smith out to the corner of the penalty area in her wake. The 23-year-old striker cut inside before driving a right-foot cross-shot toward the back post, perfectly placed between Bindon and her back-tracking defenders. Wambach outsprinted Erceg at the back post to bundle the ball into an empty net from three yards out.
The U.S.’ back four and midfield looked solid defensively whenever New Zealand probed. Their awareness of when to commit players forward on the counter-attack and their quickness in doing so created an excellent chance to double the lead two minutes later.
Seven U.S. defenders stifled an attack by six New Zealand players, with Heath eventually intercepting a poor ball by Hoyle after Christie Rampone charged from the back line to pressurize her opponent. Wambach dropped into the center circle to provide an outlet, and she turned to find Morgan making a forward run behind New Zealand’s defense.
America’s wily veterans came to the fore. Wambach paused, waiting patiently for support to arrive as Morgan flirted with being caught offside, before sliding the ball left to continue the break. It was Rampone who came charging forward, sensing the moment to continue her run after breaking up New Zealand’s attack inside her own defensive third. The 37-year-old captain galloped into The Ferns’ penalty box before sliding a low cross to Wambach at the back post. Riley chased back diligently to clear.
Morgan’s Scoring Drought Continues
Alex Morgan’s scoring rate for the U.S. national team has been phenomenal since making her debut against Mexico in March 2010 – 29 goals in 43 games. She hasn’t added to her tally since the U.S. beat France 4-2 in their Olympic opener despite numerous chances coming her way.
Erceg smacked her intended clearance from Amy Le Peilbet’s long punt against Morgan on 48 minutes and the ball fell kindly for the Seattle Sounders striker. She surged into New Zealand’s penalty area before driving a right-foot shot into the near side netting when Bindon’s far corner was gaping.
The young Californian almost had another sight on goal a minute later after barging Erceg off the ball on the 18-yard line. Smith responded with a similar challenge that sent Morgan tumbling to the ground inside the penalty area. Referee Jesica Di Iorio ignored the U.S.’ hopeful appeals for a spot kick.
Morgan then snatched at a chance when Rapinoe’s deep free kick dropped invitingly for her near the penalty spot on 58 minutes. Her shot rolled harmlessly through to Bindon.
Heath released the Diamond Bar native on Bindon’s goal again on 62 minutes after Wambach had expertly flicked on Rampone’s clearance at the halfway line. The goalkeeper sprinted out to make a vital block at the edge of her penalty area.
A controversial moment followed a similar break on 73 minutes. Another routine long ball from the U.S. found Morgan sprinting behind New Zealand’s defense into a 1-vs-1 with Bindon, this time just outside the penalty area. The American pin-up nudged the ball around her opponent toward the vacant net before trying to hurdle the sprawling goalkeeper. Morgan’s knee forcefully connected with Bindon’s face, leaving both players lying motionless as Riley recovered to clear the loose ball. Di Iorio initially let play continue before stopping it to allow the injured players to receive medical treatment.
Leroux Slams Door On Hopeful Ferns
Readings had brought on Chelsea midfielder Hayley Moorwood for Yallop on 57 minutes and introduced White for the ineffective Wilkinson as time ticked away from his team. The lofty forward produced one dangerous moment before her departure, sending an inviting ball across Solo’s goalmouth on 69 minutes that deserved to find a teammate attacking the six-yard box.
Full-backs Riley and Ria Percival were starting to advance, providing width to New Zealand’s narrow passing game. Riley sent another dangerous cross into the penalty area and Percival forced Solo into a save with her 30-yard shot.
Di Iorio waved away New Zealand’s strong claims for a penalty kick on 83 minutes after a neat exchange involving Hearn and Percival set White darting into the penalty area with O’Hara and Lloyd desperately giving chase. The 19-year-old crashed to the floor after O’Hara appeared to use her left arm to impede her progress.
It was the first time that a New Zealand player had carried the ball menacingly into the U.S.’ penalty box, and it proved to be their final threat. Leroux, who came on for Morgan after 81 minutes, raced onto Heath’s long ball exploiting New Zealand’s short-handed defense. The Canada-born forward accelerated away from Smith’s last-ditch challenge before slotting a right-foot shot low on target. It wasn’t the most resounding strike, but it flew through Bindon’s legs as the goalkeeper dived to her left.
An untidy but ultimately successful finish to an untidy but ultimately successful afternoon’s work.
Aug. 1, 2012 — USA Hangs On Against Koreans To Seal Third Group Win
July 26, 2012 — Morgan And Wambach Rescue U.S. In Subpar Olympic Opener